Future Lab: An Applied Experiment in Digital Scholarship



Edward L. Ayers, works with the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, where he is President and Professor of History. In his essay ‘Does Digital Scholarship Have A Future‘ Ayers questions why the technological revolution has changed academic life yet the articles and books that scholars produce and the institutions themselves remains surprisingly unaltered. Image: Overlords by artist Tom Estes.

What will the future be like? Right now, the technologies that we use to understand the world are in the process of a major transformation. Almost every field of knowledge is generating vast quantities of data, requiring unprecedented computing power and intelligent algorithms to interpret. The head-spinning pace of technological and social change brought about by the internet have made us all accustomed to the transformations and innovations that would have amazed us ten years ago. Now they are merely passing news, as transient as a tweet, video, or Facebook post. Journalism has been profoundly altered—and we have grown used to the new forms. With the immense promise comes great challenges — the foremost being how to sift through the deluge of data to garner meaningful insights and translate them into practical innovations. Working out how to advance into personalized medicine from the human genome project, or create massive simulations of the cosmos from satellite and telescope data will occupy many.

Even educational institutions, traditionally skeptical of externally generated change, have become indifferent to the web-induced changes. Everyone takes e-mail, digital library resources, and is electronic connection to professional organizations for granted. “Professors fire up Firefox or Skype or Google Earth in class without thinking about using technology.” These are revolutions in higher education that have come quickly. Yet the foundation of academic life—the scholarship on which everything else is built—remains surprisingly unaltered. The nineteenth century model of Universities built on Enlightenment thinking still produces articles and books that scholars produce today bear little mark of the digital age in which they are created. Researchers use electronic tools as a matter of routine in their professional lives but not to transform the substance or form of scholarship.

According to Ayers, not many scholars worry about this situation. He states: “A recent random sample by Ithaka S+R finds that two-thirds of faculty—across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities judge that new digital methods are not valuable or important for their research. The study notes that even though digital practices may influence these scholars work in a variety of ways,” few scholars see “the value of integrating digital practices into their work as a deliberate activity.” So for many scholars using digital methods would simply not be “worth the time”; about one-third of the respondents said they do not know “how to effectively integrate digital research activities and methodologies” into their work and have no desire to learn.

For those who have watched the inception of digital innovation, this is disconcerting. In the early years of the internet it was entirely, untested and unrestrained. The digital appeared to be a place where scholars might foster exciting collaborations, building both a new infrastructure and content. Despite the restrictions of slow modems, weak processors, and limited servers, the web’s saw enthusiastic efforts to build new scholarly tools, including the Perseus Project in the Classics, the Rossetti Archive and the Walt Whitman Archive in literature, and the Valley of the Shadow in history.


Image: Temptation of Christ, by artist Tom Estes

Ayers goes on to say “The concept of digital scholarship has emerged to describe this activity. Although the phrase sometimes refers to issues surrounding copyright and open access and sometimes to scholarship analyzing the online world, digital scholarship—emanating, perhaps, from digital humanities—most frequently describes discipline-based scholarship produced with digital tools and presented in digital form. The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab was established in 2007, and new centers have emerged at Rice, Brown, Emory, Miami, Ohio State, and Case Western Universities, the Universities of Utah, Oregon, Kansas, and California at Irvine, Haverford College, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and other colleges and universities. The tag has been used also for recent conferences and initiatives at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Macalester, as well as in the United Kingdom.”

Though the phrase digital scholarship reflects impressive interdisciplinary ambition and coherence, two crucial elements remain in short supply in this emerging field. First, the number of scholars willing to commit themselves and their careers to digital scholarship has not kept pace with institutional opportunities. Second, today few scholars are trying, as they did earlier in the web’s history, to re-imagine the form as well as the substance of scholarship. In some ways, scholarly innovation has been domesticated, with the very ubiquity of the web bringing a lowered sense of excitement, possibility, and urgency. These two deficiencies form a reinforcing cycle: the diminished sense of possibility weakens the incentive for scholars to take risks, and the unwillingness to take risks limits the impact and excitement generated by boldly innovative projects.

According to Ayers.the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond is attempting to build one model of what this new scholarship might look like. The lab combines various elements of proven strategies while also breaking new ground. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the historians Robert K. Nelson and Scott Nesbit and their colleagues are creating a digital atlas of American history. The first initiation of the atlas, Visualizing Emancipation, will be followed by an amplified, annotated, and animated digital edition of The Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, first published in 1932. Over the next three years, chapters of original and dynamic maps and interpretations will focus on key aspects of the American experience since the nation’s founding. The digital atlas will allow scholars to see patterns we have never been able to envision before while at the same time it will make available to teachers of all levels visualizations of crucial processes in American history.

The Valley of the Shadow was a digital history project hosted by the University of Virginia detailing the experiences of Confederate soldiers from Augusta County, Virginia and Union soldiers from Franklin County, Pennsylvania. William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers, the creators of the project, called it “an applied experiment in digital scholarship.” Edward L. Ayers, one of the creators of the project in 1993, now works with the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, where he is President and Professor of History. You can read the full essay by Edward L. Ayers,  ‘Does Digital Scholarship Have A Future’ by going to: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/does-digital-scholarship-have-future

About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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